One of the little known assets of the Chinese military is the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) Special Forces. The PLA has long specialized in unconventional warfare. After all, it was the principle of guerrilla warfare that enabled the creation of the Peoples Republic of China. Chinese tactical doctrine is still based on the premise that any foreign invasion or conventional war would be fought using unconventional tactics, at least from the Chinese side. However, this doctrine has changed as the Chinese armed forces have embarked on an aggressive campaign to update their military equipment and provide their armed forces personnel with better skills. Thus, Chinas leaders no longer consider guerrilla warfare as the only possible means to defend their country. But the concept of guerrilla warfare is far from forgotten. Today, the task of conducting unconventional warfare falls to the PLA Special Operations Troops.
Until the 1990s, the Peoples Republic of China did not have a specific special operations unit set up. Then, the Chinese military realized it needed a dedicated unit of special forces soldiers. The PLA SOF units missions include special reconnaissance, penetrations of enemy territory, conducting raids of enemy targets, rescuing POWs, and capturing enemy personnel for interrogation. Chinese SOFs, like special forces around the world, are lightly armed and designed for rapid reaction. These units usually receive the best infantry weapons, communications gear, and other equipment, since the Chinese brass considers them to be of great importance, for gathering information and harassing enemy personnel, in a limited scale war. The first experiments with special operations for the PRC was during the 1980s in the Guangzhou military region. Afterwards, the formation of the SOF unit was accelerated until China had a well-trained (for PLA troops), force of fewer than 10,000 special war fighters.
Aside from the Special Operations Forces, the Peoples Republic of China has also established another elite unit, the Airborne Corps, as part of their strategic reserve and rapid reaction forces. Airborne troops are under the direct command of the Central Military Commission, but ironically, unlike other countries, the PLAs Airborne Troops are subordinate to the Air Force instead of the Army. The first Chinese airborne units were established in June of 1961 and today are divided into one army (known as the 15th Army) with three airborne divisions (the 43rd, 44th. And 45th) each with 8 to 10 thousand troops. According to the PLAs war fighting doctrine, airborne troops are used for a number of different missions including parachute operations, air transportable operations, and helicopter-borne operations. Parachute operations, according to the PLA, are those operations carried out by paratroopers of an offensive nature (parachute assault) and followed up, if needed, by regular ground forces. Such attacks are not the sole responsibility of light infantry anymore either. Reportedly, the Airborne Corps has received a number of BMD-3 armored personnel carriers to use in offensive parachute operations. Helicopter-borne operations are basically the PLA term for air assault ops, using helicopters to transport infantry to their area of attack. However, due to a shortage of helicopters, only limited operations can currently be undertaken, but, as the PRC acquires more helicopters (presumably from Russia), this is expected to improve.
The PLA has placed significant emphasis on the roles that Airborne Corps troops would play in the event of a limited-scale war. Such roles would include seizure of routes and major crossings in advance of main ground forces or to protect the rear of the main advancing force, sabotage missions against enemy support units and guidance equipment, disruption of enemy logistics, and support of amphibious operations.
The training of Airborne Corps troops is rigorous and demanding and produces the best-trained ground troops the Chinese have. Recruits to the Airborne Corps are selected based on education, which is generally required to be higher than that of the average PLA recruit. Airborne troops are required to sign up for a four-year armed forces stint instead of the normal two. There is generally a larger proportion of NCOs in the Airborne Corps than in other PLA units. Paratroopers are trained in urban and jungle warfare in order to acquire an all-weather, all-terrain capability.
Despite shortages of certain types of equipment, the Peoples Liberation Armys elite units are a formidable force, particularly regarding the Airborne Corps. Any conventional limited war against China, by the US or any of Chinas foreign neighbors, would find themselves having to face off against an increasingly well-armed and competently trained cadre of special operations forces.